THE ADVENTURE OF ENGLISH: The Biography of a Language

Melvyn Bragg, Author . Arcade $27.95 (322p) ISBN 978-1-55970-710-7

This compelling and charmingly personal companion to an eight-part television documentary (scheduled for the fall) makes for an idiosyncratic rival to PBS's bestselling blockbuster The Story of English , by Robert McCrum et al. Titling a history of the evolution and expansion of a language an "adventure" presupposes a hero, with such obvious choices as Alfred the Great, for defeating the Danes; Chaucer, for his Canterbury Tales ; Shakespeare, for his poetic inventiveness; or Samuel Johnson, for his groundbreaking dictionary. Bragg, a British TV and radio personality and novelist (The Soldier's Return ), gives all their contributions their due, but English itself, with its "deep obstinacy" and "astonishing flexibility," emerges as his favorite character. Bragg's enthusiasm for his subject-hero, whether the Old English of Beowulf or the new "Text English" of the Internet, makes up for his shortcomings as a linguist: his sources, unfootnoted, are at times at variance with the OED or Webster's Third. For instance, Bragg furnishes only one putative origin for the disputed "real McCoy." Moreover "candy" does not seem to have Anglo-Indian origins (it's from the Arabic "qandi"), and the first recorded use of "vast" is not from Shakespeare (the OED cites Archbishop Edwin Sandys). Nevertheless, this "biography" succeeds in its broad, sweeping narrative, carrying the reader from the origins of Anglo-Saxon through the Viking and Norman invasions to the consolidation of "British" English and outward to America, Australia, India, the West Indies and beyond. After some 1,500 years, with one billion speakers now worldwide, according to Bragg, the English language has displayed an amazing ability to repair and reinvent itself, as Bragg ably shows. 32 pages of color illus. Agent, Vivien Greene of Shiel Land, U.K. (May)

Reviewed on: 04/05/2004
Release date: 10/01/2004
Genre: Nonfiction
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